We’ve been watching the news casts from Rome in recent days. 115 cardinals gathered there to elect a new pope. Each day, we were watching to see the smoke. Was it black? Was it white? Does the Roman Catholic Church have a new pope or not? A wag on the internet posted a guide to conclave smoke, offering some different smoke color options: red means a cardinal has gone missing, brown means an espresso break, yellow means a cardinal has left the lights of his car on and so forth…it’s funny stuff, culminating finally in what it means if there is pink smoke: Hello Kitty has been elected pope!
This afternoon, we saw white smoke, and discovered that the new Pope is Pope Francis, a Jesuit from Argentina originally named Jorge Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, a man who rides the local public transit system to get around the city. We pray for him, and for the Catholic Church in this time of transition.
We laughed at the talk of Hello Kitty smoke, but we also knew that this was serious business, this electing of a pope, the spiritual leader of some 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. Popes have been game-changers in the world: look at John Paul II and his opposition to the Marxist regimes in the Soviet Union. For some of us from other denominations, the actions of Popes have triggered the birth of a new denomination: Clement VII’s unwillingness to grant Henry VIII an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon led to Henry pronouncing himself supreme head of the church in England, which led to the birthing of the Church of England, and eventually to the Episcopal Church in which I serve.
Popes are important, whether we are Catholic or not, and one of the many titles they bear is a particularly ancient one: successor to St Peter, the Bishop of Rome.
This is, of course, the same Peter that Jesus named as the rock upon which he would build his church. The same Peter who, just a bit later, riled up Jesus so thoroughly that the Lord said “Get behind me, Satan!” The same Peter who, in the gospel passage we just heard, so miserably failed in the time of crisis by hiding and pretending that he wasn’t one of those followers of the Lord, by denying him not once, not twice, but three times.
The man who often didn’t understand what it was that Jesus was saying…a humble man, most likely without much in education. A fisherman. Probably a good fisherman, but still…a fisherman, not a rocket scientist. Not a theologian. Not ordained. Utterly ordinary. A guy in homespun clothes that probably still smelled of pickerel and perch, a man with a bit of a temper when upset, a passionate man whose emotions sometimes got the better of him, but a solid buddy who would lend a hand if you needed it.
Compare that to the candidates for successor to Peter in Rome. These men who hold advanced degrees in theology and related disciplines, who write learned articles and books, who dress in the finest satin and silk and lace, these careful and faithful men who probably never set a fishing net in the water or tied a knot other than that of their cinctures…they are careful not to appear too hungry for the title – the saying is “Go in a pope, go out a cardinal. Go in a cardinal, come out a pope.” Appearing to be vying for the papacy is apparently unseemly. But there are conversations, and there are thoughts about who might take on this complex and difficult task of leading the church…to be a new rock upon which the church will rest for the next decades. Some favor a strong reformer/administrator type. Some favor someone from the parts of the world where the church is growing the fastest. Some want a pope with a deep heart, and all of this plays into the voting, I would expect.
But none of them smells like perch or pickerel. None of them has rough hands from the labor of tying and tossing and pulling the nets and wrangling the boat across rough waters. The successor to Peter will most likely not seem like Peter – that diamond in the rough fisherman – at all.
And yet we look back at the story of that fisherman that we just heard and we see such interesting glimpses into the man.
It is Peter at his weakest. He thought he’d be brave after Jesus told them all of what was coming. He thought he’d defend Jesus to the end. At the last supper, when Jesus said that they would all fail him, Peter defended himself: “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.”
You can picture him, can’t you? Jesus said they would fail him. They all said, “No, no, not me!” You can see how red Peter is, the hot blood creeping up from his neck to suffuse his whole face – even his ears are now bright red with hot temper – and he cries out “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.”
But then the story unfolds, and Peter and James and John accompany Jesus to Gethsemane. Do they stand guard to protect him as he prays? No.
They fall asleep.
Even Peter, the rock, the hot-tempered man who has sworn his allegiance, now dozes in the garden. Even the man who was so offended that Jesus would suggest that he would abandon the Lord, snores as he leans against a rock.
An ordinary man, this Peter, with all the human failings that we recognize in ourselves: egotism, anger, pride…a man who sometimes says thoughtless things, who makes promises that he clearly cannot keep. This Peter. This rock, upon whom Jesus has built his church.
I think that when we hear the story of Peter denying Jesus – “No, I do not know the man!” – it makes us intensely uncomfortable, because it feels so much like what we would do if we were in his position. If we were afraid. If we felt like an outlaw. If we were challenged by people who would gladly turn us in to our enemies for a few coins. We might find ourselves with not a drop of courage in our veins in that moment…
And then we say to ourselves, “Well, we will never be in that situation, so I guess we’re safe. We will never be tested in that way.”
We breathe a sigh of relief, thinking, “No, I am not like Peter.”
But is that really true?
When does our courage fail us? When do we deny the Lord, even after we have sworn that we will not fail him?
When someone tells a joke at the expense of another, perhaps playing on that person’s ethnicity or skin color, we deny the Christ who taught us that we are all beloved of God. When we see the opportunity to help someone in need, and we stop short, thinking that the person makes us nervous because she doesn’t talk like us or smells bad, we deny the Christ who said that we are to help others. When we say that those who are hurting should shape up, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, get themselves a job, because doesn’t it say that “the Lord helps those who help themselves,” we deny the Christ who said that even an adulteress didn’t deserve to be stoned, even a demoniac deserved relief from his demons, even the child of an enemy should be healed…
We are all Peter. We are all Peter, hiding in a courtyard, saying “I do not know the man.” True words, because if we truly knew the man, we wouldn’t deny him.
But if Peter’s story ended with his ignominious denials, we would miss out on the most important part of what this story and this man is about.
Yes, Peter denied his Lord, the same Lord he cherished above all others. Yes, his shame was great, and he wept for it. But he gathered himself afterwards. He joined with the other disciples. He became something more than the craven who denied Christ…he became the rock upon whom the church was built. This ordinary, flawed, uneducated, hot-tempered man who failed at the moment of greatest crisis became the leader of a religious movement that reshaped the world. His leadership was not perfect – he regularly got into disputes with others, no surprise there – but it was faithful and powerful, as attested to in the Acts of the Apostles.
Peter grew into being the rock. It wasn’t an elegantly sculpted piece of marble, like the statues in St Peter’s in Rome. It was a rough-hewn imperfect solid chunk of strength. But it was solid and strong and unshakeable. He grew into being a rock, being The Rock.
I expect that those 115 cardinals in the papal conclave, voting on who will be the next successor to Peter, are painfully aware of their imperfections. They know that any of them, should they be elected pope, will bring their brokenness as well as their gifts. Silks and satins and lace may cover the exterior flaws, but their humanity will still remain. But they pray that the one whom they elect will grow into the task, as Peter grew into being the rock
We share much of the same struggle, even though we aren’t about electing a pope. We know we would be as likely to deny Christ as we would defend him, if we were afraid. We know that we are imperfect followers.
But the lesson of Peter, who failed but still persevered, is that imperfect followers can learn and grow and become, if not perfect Christians, at least better at following the task that our Lord set before us when he set his eyes on Jerusalem.
You are the rock. Upon you, I build my church.